Best Of :: Food & Drink
CARMEN THE RESTAURANT, 700 Biltmore Way (David William Hotel), Coral Gables, 305-913-1944
The recent opening of Carmen the Restaurant completes a circle for chef/owner Carmen Gonzalez. In 1988, after testing her culinary skills at New York's Quilted Giraffe, Gonzalez left Manhattan for Miami. She landed in Coral Gables and in January 1989 opened her own restaurant, Clowns. New Times, in a praiseworthy review, had this to say: "The menu is on the cutting edge of what food critics are calling 'Americanized Caribbean.' Gonzalez calls it a blend of Southwestern, Caribbean, and California cuisine, but I prefer to call it Carmen-ized -- it's her creation." Clowns didn't survive, but Gonzalez moved on to executive positions at the Miami Club and the Tamarind Bar and Grill. Then she created a successful catering company. Now the lure of the restaurant business has drawn her back -- back to the creative challenge, to the Gables, and to an establishment of her own.
BEST LOCAL LANDMARK
The Biltmore Hotel.
BEST MONTH TO BE IN MIAMI
Any month where the temperature drops below 60 degrees.
BEST CHEAP THRILL
Chicken wings at Flanigan's.
BEST NOT-SO-CHEAP THRILL
Dining in Paris.
BEST PLACE TO SAVOR THE FLAVOR OF MIAMI
The original Casa Lario's.
BEST DINING TREND
Any -- as long as someone else cooks.
BEST NATURAL HIGH
Being in my kitchen.
BEST PICNIC SPOT
BEST REASON TO LIVE IN MIAMI
All the wonderful friends and colleagues I've met in my years of living here, and being a part of the culinary community.
ROASTED DUCK TAMALES WITH VINTAGE PORT SAUCE
Yields: Around 20 large or 40 appetizer-size tamales
1 pack corn husks, rinsed and soaked in warm water for one hour
1 5-pound fresh duckling
1/2 medium onion
1 bouquet garni
5 garlic cloves, whole
3 celery stalks
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Rinse duck under cold water and pat dry. Season both inside and out with salt and pepper. Stuff the duck with onion, bouquet garni, carrot, garlic, and celery. Place duck in a cooling rack and roast at 425 for one hour. Lower the temperature to 350 degrees and cook for another 30 minutes or until the inside temperature reaches 160-170. Remove from oven and let it cool. Cut or break duck into 8 pieces (2 breasts) for easier handling. With fingers and knife, separate as much meat from the bones as you can. Then, using just your fingers, tear meat pieces into thin shreds roughly one-half to one inch long (as you would for ropa vieja or pulled pork).
Vintage port sauce:
2 cups vintage port
1 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons shallots, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon chives
Heat 1 tablespoon butter in sauce pan, add shallots and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes. Add port and wine vinegar, reduce by half. Add heavy cream and reduce by half. Finish with remaining butter and chives.
(For the masa)
1/2 cup grilled corn kernels
1 medium Spanish onion
1 cup water
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons vegetable shortening
1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons honey
Salt and pepper
Purée the corn and onion with water in a food processor. Transfer to a bowl and stir in butter and shortening. Using your fingers, mix in the rest of the ingredients until it all comes together and there are no lumps.
Remove the husks from the water, drain, and lay on paper towels to dry. Tear two 1-inch-wide strips for each tamale to tie them. Lay two husks overlapping on a flat surface; place about 1/3 cup of the masa in the center; place 2 tablespoons of the shredded duck on top. Bring both sides of the husk up over the filling. Twist each end to wrap it up tightly, pushing the mixture to the middle as you tie it up. Steam the tamales covered on a bamboo steamer for 45 minutes. At this point they can be frozen for up to two weeks.
Use a paring knife to cut lengthwise across each tamale and push toward the middle to expose filling. Place 2 tablespoons of duck on top and drizzle it with 2 tablespoons of port sauce.
Restaurants rarely make their own bread (so much easier to source it from a good bakery), and those that do frequently limit their production to one or two specialties. Not so Bizcaya Grill. Maybe it's because, given its location in the Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove, it has the space and resources to do it. No doubt having an overnight baker helps as well. But whatever the reason, the results are what you can count on, or depending on your mood, count calories on: fresh-baked Danish pastries and muffins for breakfast. Pain du chocolate and croissants at Sunday brunch. Parmesan buns and lemon brioche to partner burgers and fish sandwiches, respectively, for the midday meal. And at dinner the piéce de resistance -- pretzel bread dotted with coarse salt or pumpkin seeds. The object, of course, is not to eat so much of the bread that you have no appetite for the foie gras served with a shot of vinegar or the black-and-white rabbit cannelloni. But then, we were never ones to shy away from a challenge.
Readers Choice: Don Pan
Sit in a booth, or sidle up to the counter and enjoy a massive repast with any and all combinations of the breakfast staples that make you want to go right back to bed: ham, bacon, sausage, waffles, pancakes, eggs, biscuits, gravy, grits. Chuck Wagon breakfasts provide the caloric intake you would need for ploughing your fields or rounding up cattle (rather than sitting at your terminal, wondering if co-workers can hear your stomach gurgle through the cubicle walls). Breakfast is available all day, and specials last from 6:00 to 10:00 a.m. Daily specials include a two eggs, grits, and bacon breakfast for $2, and omelet and breakfast combos that change every day, but hover around the $4-$5 price range.
A perennial favorite in the dim sum category, Tropical -- surprise -- also serves a great din-din. Traditional dishes include Hong Kong-style roast pork flavored with five-spice and then roasted; seafood-spinach soup; and always crisp, always succulent Peking duck. But innovative items are equally reliable, if unusual -- flounder pan-fried with peppercorns and jalapeños and served with bananas marinated in rice wine, for example, offers interesting counterpoints of textures, as does cherry-plum chicken wrapped with diced water chestnuts and fresh bamboo in egg-white crêpes. A healthy wine list replete with floral Rieslings adds to the fine-dining effect, giving aficionados of all kinds reason to make Tropical an evening as well as morning destination.
To borrow a line from the old ad campaign for Arnold's rye bread, you don't have to be Jewish to eat kosher chocolate. Indeed whether you follow those dietary rules or not, the ultimate issue is taste, for which Krön is an ecumenical experience of the heavenly culinary variety. Its tantalizing array of candies, truffles, and dipped fruits are all made by hand with top-notch ingredients (and prices to match). Coffee and baked goods like brownies and cookies are also for sale, though the tables set out in the middle of the mall are decidedly unatmospheric. Recent ink on the store has hinted at expansion plans. Let's hope any new outlets include a proper café.
This charming crêperie replicates the design of a classic French café: the tile floors, the long wooden benches along the walls, lots of reading material lying about, and good, strong java. If the weather were cooler, one could easily picture a professorial type in corduroys perusing Le Monde over his afternoon espresso. Locals and tourists alike flock for the delicious savory and sweet crêpes, along with other simple fare like croque monsieur (the Gallic version of grilled cheese with ham), at prices that will make you wonder whether you are really still in South Beach. To avoid a wait, come earlyish on a weekend morning with a newspaper or a book, and ease into the day over a steaming bowl of café au lait.
Readers Choice: Starbucks
We'll put it in the simplest terms: If one wants ingredients such as black truffles, white asparagus, cipollini onions, heirloom tomatoes, artisanal cheeses, Dover sole, and boneless quail, one must dig deep into the pockets. If one desires these comestibles to be prepared in the New World by chefs who have been trained in the Old World, one must cough up the cash. If one wants to sample these dishes in a hidden-gem, secret-garden atmosphere that has as much homestyle charm as Versace's erstwhile mansion, one must forfeit the bucks. But for those who can't wash dishes in case of emergency, don't worry -- there's a Citibank ATM right across the street.
Readers Choice: Café Abbracci
Maybe it's because in this neck of the woods (one block outside Miami Shores) you used to get mighty thirsty until this restaurant picked up a liquor license over the summer. Maybe it's because the bartender and the owner and the waiter all greet you as you arrive. Maybe it's because they hold live music nights. Maybe it's because the mixture of seafood and pasta is so tasty. Maybe it's because, if you visit a few times, you're sure to know someone at a table or the bar. Maybe it's because the fish-net nautical theme can't be beat. Most likely it's a combination of all of the above. Most likely you're going to be glad everyone knows your name as you fork up those mussels and sip your martini. (On Wednesdays, ladies, your first one is free!)
Step inside the Bird Road location and you'll find yourself in the re-created courtyard of a Nicaraguan hacienda, complete with burbling fountain and guitar music. That's the idea, at least, and if you don't find it convincing, let the excellent food and extremely attentive service at El Novillo ease your nerves until Bird Road's infuriating traffic seems far far away. If that doesn't work, eat a sixteen-ounce "Big Daddy" churrasco -- after that, you won't care where you are. Perfectly cooked churrasco -- seared outside, melting inside -- is the signature at El Novillo, but just about all the food stands out. The "nica-tizers" (all less than four dollars except sampler platters) are a good start for the uninitiated, particularly the vigoron (pork cracklings with yuca) or the fried cheese with slaw and corn tortillas. The prices are quite reasonable (from $12 to $25 for most entrées) but the white tablecloths and courteous waitstaff give El Novillo the air of a four-star restaurant -- or hacienda.
Dining alone is both an art and a science. Therefore the solo diner obviously has a dual appreciation for both the imagination and the intellect. Where else to find the creativity as well as the observational opportunities necessary to keep such a person entertained than at the bar of Two Chefs? This ten-seater is cozy enough to get to know your neighbor but roomy enough to be served a full-course meal. And not just any meal, but one that might include escargot pot pie with smoked pork and sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus salad with Maine lobster and chimichurri, or a flatbread topped with Chinese black bean barbecued shrimp. Nor does the inspired elegance stop short of the wine list, which comprises smartly chosen, internationally renowned vintages that are poured into Riedel glassware. Feel the need to chat with someone about the virtues of the Gary Farrell Zinfandel and how it pairs with the oak-baked portobello with Gruyère and sourdough toast? Seek out the two chefs themselves, Soren Bredahl and Jan Jorgensen -- when two names are on the marquee, it's a pretty good bet that at least one is in the kitchen at all times.
Readers Choice: At home
If you don't order one of the mofongo dishes at Old San Juan Restaurant, order a five-dollar mofongo ball with your entrée. The pork-and-mashed plantain combination is cooked perfectly. Puerto Rican cuisine may not be the pathway to weight loss (lots of pork, lots of pork and chicken cracklings, lots of fried everything) but it is undoubtedly comfort food with warm flavors (garlic and oregano are prominent) and no fiery spices. The restaurant isn't cheap, but with most entrées between ten and twenty dollars, it's far from the most expensive in Miami. The mofongo dishes come with just about everything, from the traditional fried pork to lobster, conch, or octopus. Other menu highlights include the pasteles (a Puerto Rican dumpling stuffed with seasoned chicken or pork and boiled in a green-plantain leaf), and the asopaos, rice stews served with combinations of seafood, meats, and (of course) fried plantains.
Emblazoned on the sign of this Brazilian rodizio-style restaurant is, appropriately, a pig. Indeed this is a restaurant experience not for the faint of heart or stomach (vegetarians should steer clear). Porcao's staff will bring to your table a seemingly endless supply of grilled beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and sausage until you give the signal to stop. The $34.99 (plus tax) dinner also includes a mountainous buffet salad bar, and is an especially good value considering you shouldn't need to eat for the next 24 hours at least. If you have room for dessert, we recommend you share, lest you add avarice to your list of sins. For the less ravenous, try lunch (choice of carne, chicken, or fish, plus the aforementioned salad extravaganza) for $14.90 weekdays from noon to 5:00 p.m. Daytime dining includes a lovely view from the airy dining room of Brickell Key and the bay.